Seldom do I see my image anywhere, especially portrayed in non-stereotypical and non-heterosexist ways on the silver screen. As a matter of fact, if you Google “black lesbians” or “black lesbians in film” you’ll get a plethora of porn sites to visit.
But writer-director Dee Rees’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama “Pariah” gives me a glimpse of my younger self growing up in Brooklyn.
Pariah is about Alike (ah-LEE-kay), a virginal 17-year-old African-American lesbian high school student living in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn who doesn’t know how to come out to her parents, who’s eager to have her first sexual experience, and who’s not sure of the type of butch lesbian she wants to be — “soft stud,” one of the “Aggressive Lesbians,” a subculture of young butch lesbians who adopt a gangster hip-hop persona to compete for femme women, or something totally different.
“Alike knows that she loves women; that’s not the question. The question is how to be,” Rees told the Boston Globe. “And so, in my own struggle, a large part of my question was how to be in the world.”
One of the ways of defining how to be in the world, especially for high schoolers, is through clothes. But with a mother — Audrey (Kim Wayans) — who demonstrates zero tolerance for her daughter’s non-gender-conforming ways, especially exhibited by Alike’s taste for non-frilly attire, we see Alike forced to be a gender chameleon — changing into her butch togs going to school and out of them going home.
“Pariah” wouldn’t be an authentic black coming-out tale if religious homophobia didn’t show its countenance on someone. And Audrey is that person.
With the hopes of her shy tomboyish daughter blossoming into a more socially friendly and feminine girl, Audrey convinces a churchgoer that their daughters, who are in the same class, should walk to school together for safety reasons. And not surprising to those of us in the black church, Alike’s first sexual experience is with one of the churchgoer’s daughters.
To find antecedents or self-reflections of yourself, especially in American film, is difficult, which is why “Pariah’s” title and theme of portraying black lesbian life, albeit marginalized in both the African-American church and white LGBTQ communities, in a positive and realistic light is thoroughly refreshing.
Occasionally, however, we will see present-day portrayals of black lesbians on major television channels and in major movie houses across the country, but not by out black lesbians.
For example, in the 2009 film “Precious,” Paula Patton plays Ms. Blu Rain, a lesbian teacher who helps Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) embrace her life’s worth and her sexuality. Patton inspires Precious to learn to read, and to write, giving her a daily writing assignment that eventually leads Precious coming into her own.
Another example, in 1996, we had Queen Latifah’s spot-on portrayal of a butch lesbian in the movie “Set It Off,” which, of course, set off a conflagration of queries about her sexual orientation. Last summer, Latifah’s character on the show “Single Ladies” — which she executive produces — was accidentally outed, and it worked out in a positive way for the character. Viewers and the blogosphere began to speculate that Latifah was channeling her personal life through her small-screen character.
But films written and directed by women of color that reach the silver screen are rare, and by LBTQ women of color, it’s even rarer. The last time I saw a film written and directed by a LBTQ woman of color that reached the level of mass distribution and international acclaim as “Pariah” was 16 years ago. In 1996, Cheryl Dunye wrote, directed and starred in her first film, “The Watermelon Woman,” which was also the first African-American lesbian feature film.
Dunye’s “mockumentary” is a scathing critique of the racist cinematic representation of black women. The protagonist of the film, played by Dunye, makes a film about an obscure black actress from the 1930s known for playing stereotypical “mammy” roles played by black actresses during that era. In this faux cinema verite account of a black lesbian filmmaker uncovering the hidden histories of black women, controversial cultural critic Camille Paglia makes a cameo appearance informing Dunye that the mammy archetype once represented a black goddess figure.
And unbeknownst to the general public, 20 feature films have been directed by black lesbians since Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman.” Dunye’s mockumentary came out during the height of black queer cinema, from 1991-1996, dubbed the “Golden Age,” when black lesbian films were predominately documentaries seen by small audiences.
It’s my hope that “Pariah” will be part of the trend of the mainstreaming of niche content. Black lesbian cinematic representation is long overdue.